Religion doesn’t require half so much faith — or trust, or surrender — as does medicine. At least that’s how it seems to you as you look toward your penultimate chemotherapy infusion, the seventh of eight self-poisonings that will have extended over twenty-one weeks before it’s all, (hopefully), finally over. Medicine asks you to believe that the Rod of the ancient Greek god Asclepius, a treatment protocol symbolized by a serpent entwined on a staff, ⚕has the power to cure you.
The protocol’s perverse premise is this: do harm in order to do good. You think about this approach in passing when your body reacts to a live virus they inject you with when you get vaccinated. You surrender to it when you agree to surgery, knowing that, while you are unconscious, something of you will be cut through, invaded and destroyed, in order that you might be healed. But you really put your faith in medicine to the test big-time when you submit to something like chemotherapy: for weeks and months you feel your body growing enfeebled while you keep telling yourself that this is what it takes to make you whole once again.
Of course, you’re complicit in and compliant with it all, just as you have been throughout every one of your cancer therapies. You’ve concurred and, calm as Socrates, you’ve docilely ingested the hemlock they so efficiently dispense. You trusted your soft-spoken oncologist when he assured you that the toxic drug cocktail you’re allowing your body to be bathed in is going to attack primarily the fast-growing cancer cells and kill them off. Kill the cancer and save your life – that’s what they want you to believe, that’s the dogma they want you to trust.
And you do believe, theoretically at least. You admit to collusion here, if, for no other reason than this: you’ve considered the alternative. You’re a believer because you have to be. But you don’t feel good about it precisely because you feel so damn lousy most of the time that you’re pursuing this noxious therapy. These chemicals might well kill the cancer, but you can’t help wondering if they’re also slowly killing you in the process. You remember that the Greek word for drugs, φάρμακον (phármakon) at its root carried the dual meaning of ‘medicine’ and ‘poison.’
Oh, you know, or at least you think you do, that this toxin will eventually do you a world of good. That’s what your faith in modern medicine and your trust in your committed caregivers are telling you that you must believe. But deep down you’re a skeptic; you don’t quite sign off on the rosy prognosis. You decide the philosopher Asha Persson’s observation comes closer to the truth: “Drugs . . . have the capacity to be beneficial and detrimental to the same person at the same time.” (Persson, Asha (2004). “Incorporating Pharmakon: HIV, Medicine, and Body Shape Change”. Body & Society. Sage Publications. 10 (4): 45–67).
Chemotherapy requires a leap of faith that you can’t quite take. You’re not surprised that even the bible records profound ambivalence about this “behold what you fear the most and be cured” approach to healing. Scripture has its own asklepian called the Nehushtan, (Hebrew: נחושתן), which the reformist king of Judah Hezekiah “broke in pieces [destroying] the bronze serpent that Moses had made” (2Kings 18:4b). According to the bible, six hundred years earlier the Lord had commanded Moses to ‘Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten [by punishing poisonous snakes] shall look at it and live.’ So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.” (Numbers 21:8b-9)
But what heals can also destroy: Israel’s greatest prophet heals his people by convincing them that what they fear the most also has the power to cure them. Then, in one of the bible’s most memorable about-faces, the great reforming king reminds us that blind attachment to the symbols of healing can deter us from the substance of healing. That curative substance is this: to be truly cured, you need to cooperate — emotionally, physically, spiritually — in trusting faith with the instruments of your healing. You know this: to be deeply healed, you must surrender and believe that you really will get better, even when this treatment feels, as it does on so many days, like staged suicide.
In the end, you pray: “Lord, ‘I believe, help my unbelief,’ (Mark 9:24b). Direct my gaze to you, lifted high on a staff, (John 3:14), that I might finally live. Grant me the courage to believe that there is great, resurrecting power in the venom of the serpent that now flows through my weakened body, even as I struggle to believe that the gift of your pain-wracked self, writhing on a crossed pole, is the final, horrifying cure for all the world’s suffering. Amen.”
© Edward R. Dufresne, 2018